The temptation of Christ in the desert has a shocking beginning.
Usually the focus of the story shifts to Christ’s experience in the desert—his wandering that recapitulates that of the ancient Israelites, his fasting and Eucharistic feasting, and his temptation by the devil, which reverses that of the first Adam.
But the hidden key to the meaning of the story is in its beginning. Here, the account in Mark helps us out. Mark omits details of the temptation—other than to say it happened—and scraps other aspects of the story that are in two other gospels that record it. Perhaps this is all the better to help us grasp what happens at the outset:
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him (Mark 1:12-13).
In the accounts of Luke and Matthew, the Holy Spirit simply leads Christ out. But here the language is striking: the Spirit drove him out. The original Greek word, ekballō, might be more literally translated as to throw out. It’s the word that is commonly used to describe the ‘casting’ out of demons in the gospels. It is a term of exile and banishment.
Such language hints that Christ’s desert experience was a more radical embrace of fallen humanity that first meets the eye. This is how Pope Benedict XVI sees it in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: “It is a descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity.”
The wilderness of Judea, to paraphrase Pope Benedict is a kind of anti-Eden. Rather than the lush landscape full of flowers and fruit it is a desolation. It is a dry desert, in contrast to the four-rivered paradise. Adam had been charged with guarding garden. Now it has been overtaken by wild beasts. Satan had slithered into Eden, now he reigns supreme over the wasteland.
Jesus’ journey into the desert then has something of the character of a rescue mission. As Pope Benedict puts it,
Jesus has to enter into the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission; he has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, in order to find the ‘lost sheep,’ to bear it on his shoulders, and to bring it home (Jesus of Nazareth, 26).
But this is a most peculiar rescue mission: Jesus enters so deeply into the human experience, that takes it upon himself—its ugliness, it weakness, even punishment for its sins. He is not only the victor for us, but also the victim on our behalf. In this sense, the ‘casting out’ of Christ into the desert recalls another sacrificial casting out from the Old Testament, described in the book of Leviticus:
But the goat determined by lot for Azazel he shall place before the Lord alive, so that with it he may make atonement by sending it off to Azazel in the desert. . …When he has finished purging the inner sanctuary, the tent of meeting and the altar, Aaron shall bring forward the live goat. Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their trespasses, including all their sins, and so put them on the goat’s head. He shall then have it led into the wilderness by an attendant.
The goat will carry off all their iniquities to an isolated region (Leviticus 16:10, 20-22).
A key clarification: the proper name Azazel is often interpreted as name for a demon, impurity personified, even Satan himself. Now the significance of this passage as foreshadowing the temptation of Christ falls into place. He is the true, the original ‘scapegoat’ for our sakes, who bore our sins on his head, who was handed over to the evil one.
In the original accounts of Leviticus, there were two goats. The one described above was exiled. The other was sacrificed. Christ is both—our sacrifice and our scapegoat. (A key source for this connection is here.)
Now it is apparent why Christ’s temptation in the desert is seen as a model for Lent. The desert experience is directly linked to the cross, just as Lent leads right into Good Friday. As Pope Benedict put it in a 2013 Angelus address,
As the Fathers of the Church teach us, the temptations are part of Jesus’ ‘descent’ into our human condition, into the abyss of sin and its consequences; a ‘descent’ that Jesus made to the end, even to death on the Cross and to the hell of extreme remoteness from God.
Lent, then, is not only a period of preparation but also already a participation in Christ’s salvific work for us. And so during the next few weeks may we contemplate Christ’s agonies in the desert—his hunger, lack of shelter, exposure to the devil, and the horror of isolation—much as we will mediate on His suffering on the cross on Good Friday.